By Jude Joffe-Block, Fronteras Desk
LAS VEGAS — At a recent naturalization ceremony in North Las Vegas, 100 immigrants stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and take the oath to become Americans.
“You can stand up just as proud as I am and say, ‘I am American,'" U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field director, Leander Holston, told the audience of immigrants holding miniature American flags. “'I know what I want, I’m going for what I want.'”
And come November, these new citizens will be able to take that advice to the voting booth for the first time.
Before major elections, there is typically an increase in the number of naturalization applications, and this year is no exception.
Martín Martinez, a salesman from Mexico, became a citizen in May.
“One of the main reasons was to be able to vote, [to] get my opinion to the United States,” Martinez said after his naturalization ceremony.
Immigrant voters gave President Barack Obama a boost in the last race. So while they're still a small share of the electorate, which way these voters go this year could matter, particularly in swing states like Nevada.
By The Numbers
This year naturalization applications are up 15 percent from last year.
Yet that spike is tiny compared to 2007, when applications almost doubled. Back then, it took U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services about a year to process applications, so that influx resulted in a record of more than one million naturalizations in 2008.
In comparison, the volume of applications in advance of this year’s presidential election is 40 percent lower than the lead up to the 2008 race.
Yet there are more than eight million legal permanent residents in the country who are eligible to apply for citizenship. A large share of them live in the Southwest.
“I think it is a huge potential for an untapped vote,” said Manuel Pastor, a professor at the University of Southern California and co-director of the university's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. “The interesting thing is to think about where this immigrant vote would really make a difference in terms of a swing vote and swing elections.”
An analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that legal permanent residents who are eligible to naturalize, along with unregistered Latino citizens of voting age, could have the potential to swing elections in Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Georgia.
Though naturalized citizens usually register to vote at lower rates than U.S.-born citizens, research shows that when they do register, their turnout rate is nearly identical.
Census estimates show the number of naturalized Americans registered to vote grew from 5.2 million in 1996 to 9.3 million in 2008, accounting for 6.4 percent of the electorate in 2008.
Efforts To Boost Naturalizations
In an effort to encourage more citizenship applications, a coalition of Latino groups, civic organizations, businesses and Spanish-language media hosted workshops earlier this year to help immigrants navigate the lengthy, and sometimes complicated, naturalization process. They were part of the national citizenship campaign known as Ya Es Hora, which translates to ‘It is time’ in English.
Hundreds of people attended the Las Vegas workshops, which were held in a large ballroom inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.
Among them was Monica Matisa, a taxi driver and mother of three who is originally from Mexico. She had hoped to turn in her naturalization application this spring, which given the current five-month processing time, would allow her to become a citizen and register to vote before the November election.
Matisa's top policy priority would be to make the immigration process a kinder one. When she applied for her green card, she was required to wait out the process in Mexico, which meant being separated from her family in Las Vegas for several months.
“It was very devastating and I was very angry, and I made a point that as soon as the five years passed, I was going to get my citizenship and do something about it.” Matisa said.
But like many, Matisa fell behind schedule with her citizenship application.
“Usually it is financial situations, you don't have the money, or you feel intimidated,” Matisa explained. “You just keep on postponing things and postponing things.”
Since the workshop, Matisa hasn't been able to spare the money for the $680 fee, so she still hasn’t sent in her application.
The 'Perfect Storm' of 2008
During the last presidential election cycle, there was a more urgent mood when it came to naturalizing.
Las Vegas political operative Marco Rauda was on the ground in 2007 and 2008, mobilizing immigrant voters.
“It was just kind of a perfect wave, kind of the cliché, the perfect storm, that made it very easy for people to say, ‘You know what, you are right, it is time. Ya es hora,’” Rauda said.
The Ya Es Hora campaign launched in 2007, and there were a few reasons the time was right that year. For one, naturalization fees were set to increase from $400 to $675, and applicants were anxious to send in their forms before the new fees went into effect.
The political context also helped. The naturalization effort came on the heels of the 2006 marches, in which immigrants across the country protested a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives that would have made it a felony to be in the country without proper immigration documents or aid someone who was undocumented.
“You could go to people and say ‘Look, right now your rights might be trampled on, and the best way for us to fight back is you becoming a citizen, is you going out there and voting,’” Rauda said.
2012 and Beyond
This year, the climate is very different. Fees are higher, and many can’t spare the expense. There is less of a perceived national threat against immigrants this year, and less hope for comprehensive immigration reform in the near future.
It's still important to take the long view, says Arturo Vargas, who heads one of the organizations behind the Ya Es Hora campaign, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“It is not just about the next election -- it is not just about November 2012,” Vargas said. “Too many times people are told if you vote this just one time for this particular candidate, or this particular election, your life will change. And then your life doesn’t. Because your life doesn't change with just one election.”
Instead, Vargas said, it is about civic participation year in and year out.
That is what he hopes the 8 million immigrants in the country who are eligible to naturalize will eventually be able to do.
Fronteras Desk is a collaborative project of public broadcasting entities in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media.